10 BEST TIPS FOR KILLING OFF CHARACTERS
Today we're talking about killing! Fictionally speaking, that is. A lot of writers get super excited to kill off their characters–so excited that they get way overzealous and mess it all up. Before you hack away at your entire cast, I’m sharing my top 10 tips for killing off characters so you can do it right.
We're gonna kill some characters, just as the writing gods intended!
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Number 1: You’re Not Reinventing the Wheel
I'm gonna suck the wind out of your sails for a second. Ever since Game of Thrones hit HBO, we've seen an explosion of newbie writers who pride themselves on how many characters they kill off. They think killing off characters is edgy. That it makes them a special, ruthless writer. It doesn’t.
Death is probably the most popular conflict in fiction. I struggle to think of a single book that I've read that doesn't at least mention death. That's because death is a common conflict in life. We all at some point will know someone who's died. Writing about death does not make you unique. It is not impressive. We're all doing it.
I'm not saying this to kick you in the dick. I'm saying this because this mentality can get writers into trouble. They kill a few characters and think, “I did it! I wrote the next great American novel!” That's not gonna cut it. Death is a dime a dozen. You're gonna need more than that to make your book stand out.
Number 2: Make It Matter
A lot of writers get upset when people say this, but I'm gonna say it anyway: every death in your story needs to serve a purpose.
Shut up, you big baby! Let the adults speak. Every death in your story should serve a purpose because every plot point in your story should serve a purpose. That's how books work. Every action should move the story forward. All of it!
Additionally, just because a kill has to serve a purpose, doesn't mean it needs to be a monumental purpose. I'm not saying to make every kill dramatic and scene-stealing. I'm just saying that you should be able to point to every single kill in your book and explain how it moves the story forward, even if it's just an inch.
In The Savior's Champion, one of the earliest kills serves a very simple purpose: establishing the villain. Kaleo makes his first kill and thus everyone knows he is someone you don't want to fuck with. On the flip side, one of the later kills is very dramatic and emotional and serves to instigate the main character's breaking point. These are very different kills with very different purposes, but here's the kicker: they both matter. If you can't think of a reason that your kill enhances the plot, then it's just gore porn.
You should be able to point to every single kill in your book and explain how it moves the story forward, even if it's just an inch.
Number 3: Consider the Audience
I once read a book that featured a sexual assault followed by a graphic murder. This wouldn't be surprising if it weren't for the fact that this was a Middle Grade book written for 10-year-olds. What?!
Before you kill off your characters, consider your target audience. That means age range and genre. The younger your audience, the less graphic your kills should be. Middle Grade kills should be quick and painless, figuratively speaking. Adult kills can be as graphic as you please, and Young Adult should be somewhere in between.
Next, consider the expectations of your genre. If you're writing any sort of dark fiction like horror, thriller, dystopian, or dark fantasy, you can get graphic with your kills. But readers don't dive into contemporary romance expecting detailed descriptions of decapitation. Take into account what your readers are anticipating before you start slicin’ and dicin’ your characters.
Number 4: Know Your Emotional Goal
No one kills off characters hoping it goes unnoticed by readers. If you're giving someone the axe, it's because you want a reaction out of readers, and it's important to determine what kind of reaction you're going for. Not all kills are created equal. Some are written to scare readers, some are written to make them cry, and some are written to make ‘em rage.
The easiest way to determine your emotional goal is to figure out how this kill affects the main character. Say, for example, the villain is dying. What would be going on in the character's mind? Are they feeling relieved, or victorious? Do they have mixed feelings? Maybe they're feeling inexplicable guilt over their role in the villain's death. Your main character's feelings are going to hinge on two things: their personality, as well as their relationship with the deceased. Nail down these elements and it'll dictate the proper emotional tone for the scene.
Number 5: It’s All in the Details
Once you've figured out the emotional tone, you're gonna need to pay close attention to the details of your scene. Your word choice is going to do a bulk of the emoting. It's going to set the mood for the character's death, which means it can make or break the scene entirely.
Say, for example, the main character's mother was murdered and they are overcome with grief. If you spend the whole scene listing the grotesque details of how this woman was butchered, that's not going to make readers sad. It's going to make them disgusted. Instead, describe the grey cast of the mother's skin. The emptiness of her eyes. The limpness of her lifeless body. Words like gray, empty, limp, and lifeless have a depressing feel to them. Thus, they set a sad tone for the scene.
Number 6: Kill Appropriately
There are roughly a bazillion ways to kill off a character, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's great to have options, but just because a particular kill seems fun doesn't mean it's a good idea. Think about your genre and world-building when deciding how to kill a character. With a contemporary setting, you're looking at realistic deaths like car accidents or health complications. In fantasy, sci-fi, or any kind of action/adventure, you're going to have more options. Particularly combat-related options and world-related options. Arrow wounds, laser fights, gunned down by the enemy. In horror comedy, you can be a lot campier. The kills should be outlandish and silly. That's the whole point! This may sound obvious, but so many writers get caught up in the thrill of fictional murder that they overkill. Pun intended. If it's not the right fit for the genre, it's going to stand out for all the wrong reasons.
Number 7: Variety Is the Spice of Life
Some books require a hell of a lot more killing, which is both fun and complicated. The more characters you kill, the less impactful it will become, which means you need to find new ways to keep your readers on their toes. The easiest way to do this is by varying the kills. If every character dies in a sword fight, that's not exciting. Readers will notice the pattern and see it coming. It's also not exciting if only background characters die. We'll understand that the key players have plot armor.
To keep things unexpected, vary not only the cause of death but the types of characters who die. Even if all the deaths are similar–say, combat-related–there are still different kinds of combat. A character can be bludgeoned to death. They can be stabbed, or strangled. They could be blown to pieces. And of course, this means some of the main cast have gotta get the boot. It'll be painful, but so, so worth it.
Number 8: Consider the Implications
Kills usually create a reaction in readers. That's kind of what you want. What you don't want is readers walking away from the kill thinking you're a bigoted asshole. There are a lot of offensive cliches surrounding character deaths. The three most obvious ones are the “black guy dies first,” “bury your gays,” and “fridging a woman.”
“Black guy dies first” is exactly what it sounds like: there's only one person of color in your book and they die first. Of course. “Bury your gays” is similar. There's only one LGBTQ+ character in the book, or there's only one LGBTQ+ couple, and they're the only ones who die. “Fridging a woman" is when a female character exists solely to die, that way a male character can become motivated by her death and turn into a hero or vigilante.
These cliches, among others, are offensive because of the implications. Whether you intended it or not, readers are going to assume that you don't value the life of anyone who is not a cis white male. This doesn't mean you can't kill off characters who are female, LGBTQ+, or people of color. It just means that if they are the only ones who die, or if their death is just a tool to motivate some white knight, people are gonna be pissed–and rightfully so!
Number 9: Shock Value Is Okay, Sometimes
We can all think of fictional kills that caught us off guard. They're often some of the best kills out there. They can also be some of the most despised kills in fiction, and that usually comes down to poor taste and poor planning. It's okay for a kill to have shock value, but if that's the only purpose it serves, there's a high probability it's going to come off as nonsensical and cheap.
Say, in your contemporary novel, your main character's father suddenly dies from a heart attack. This is shocking, but it makes sense. Heart attacks are sudden. Plus, they're really common among middle-aged men. It can also serve a greater purpose in the story. Maybe it instigates the main character reconnecting with their love interest at the funeral. But if the main character's father is suddenly gunned down by the mafia out of nowhere, that's not shocking–it’s just stupid.
You want readers thinking, “I didn't see that coming!” Not, “Where the hell did that come from?” Remember, not all shocking kills are good kills, and not all kills need to be shocking. A slow, drawn-out death that we see coming a mile away can be just as impactful as a shocking death.
Number 10: Think Long and Hard Before Killing Off the Big Guys
A lot of writers want to surprise their readers, so they kill off a main character or a fan favorite. Sometimes this works. Other times, it backfires in a big way. You really need to think long and hard about which camp your story fits into. Some things to consider are genre and audience. A happily ever after is a qualifier for the romance genre, so if you kill off one of your main characters, you've just broken a vital genre rule and readers are gonna be pissed.
On the flip side, if you're writing horror, this wouldn't be an issue at all. Readers expect tragedy. You should also consider thematic statements and story building. If your character's death goes against all of their past choices, as well as the message of your story, then it's going to come up as a cheap shock value tactic.
But one of the most important things to consider is the longevity of your story, especially if you're writing a series. Killing off the MC or a fan fave can spark two kinds of rage in readers: either they become desperate to finish the series and find out if their beloved was avenged, or they decide to abandon the series entirely. After all, the favorite's dead, so why keep reading?
So that's all I've got for you today!
I hope these tips gave you everything you need to bust out the hatchet and kill off some characters–the right way! But be sure to think long and hard about the potential consequences of killing off a key player. It may just be fiction, but it could make or break your reader's overall satisfaction with your novel.
What's the most impactful fictional death scene you remember? Let me know what made it stand out from the crowd!
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